Harford County government spent over $300,000 on TV and radio advertisements — paid for with federal CARES Act money — featuring County Executive Barry Glassman reminding residents of COVID-19 safety guidelines like washing hands, staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks.
The ads were made to encourage residents to follow the recommendations of health professionals, relying on Glassman to put a familiar face to the guidelines, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said. But experts say the ads also serve to connect the county executive with sound public health practices and get his name on the airwaves — a boon to politicians.
Glassman, a Republican, uses the phrase “Keep Maryland strong,” to close the advertisement, mirroring a slogan fellow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has used to brand his Maryland Strong: Roadmap for Recovery and Economy Recovery plans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor at American University’s school of business Ronald Hill, specializing in marketing and public policy, said the TV spot bears the hallmarks of a political ad.
There are generally two types of political ads, he explained, those that are positive and those that denigrate. By figuring so prominently in the TV spot, and speaking with a jovial tone, Glassman gets his name and face out to the public in a positive light.
“It has a feel of a political ad,” Hill said. “I would not have been surprised if it was a political ad … all he needed to do was add ‘I am running for governor.’”
Glassman’s second term as county executive will end in 2022. The Republican is term limited and cannot run for the same office again, but he has hosted at least two fundraisers since October — one at Hopkins Farm Brewery with Sen. Jason Gallion and Billy Boniface, Glassman’s chief adviser who is planning a run for county executive, and an annual Thanksgiving dinner, which served drive-through meals this year.
Glassman has not officially announced his intentions to run for a state office in 2022, but in August, his campaign Facebook page changed its cover photo to one that reads, “Barry Glassman for Maryland” using the yellow, red and black color scheme of the Maryland flag.
Reached by phone Thursday, Glassman said that he is weighing his options on a possible run for governor, comptroller or a congressional seat, but had not decided anything. He aims to make decisions on his next move in springtime and has not ruled out returning to the private sector.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Glassman said. “I’ve never lost a race, so I’ve got to think about whether it is time to do something else or if I do want to try a statewide campaign, which would be a long-shot for a Republican candidate.”
Glassman has previously held office as a state delegate and senator. His campaign committee, Friends of Barry Glassman, reported a balance of approximately $366,000 in January, when the state last required an annual report to be filed.
The idea for the ads came from Glassman, Mumby said, to remind area residents who are worn out from COVID-19 guidelines to follow masking, distancing and hand-washing recommendations.
The TV and radio spots are only one part of the county’s public health messaging, which has met some push back on social media. Comments doubting the coronavirus’ lethality and effectiveness of COVID-safety procedures, along with politically-tinged rows, frequently crop up underneath the county’s Facebook posts on the safety guidelines.
“There are still some folks out there who are not following those steps consistently, so it is a reminder to do that,” Mumby said “It also sends a message from the county executive that this is something to take seriously.”
The bulk of the ad expenditures went to WBAL, which has regional reach in Maryland and received approximately $250,000 for TV spots and about $37,000 for radio advertisements, Mumby said. The TV ads ran from the weeks of Oct. 12 through Nov. 23. The county government also spent lesser amounts at three other radio stations to run the ads, which were modified to encourage listeners to support their local businesses.
The county paid $3,490 to the Maryland production company Sympatico to make the TV advertisements, and the radio ads did not cost anything to produce, Mumby said.
University at Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel, after viewing the TV ad, said it was not an electioneering advertisement, but it certainly did not hurt that Glassman’s name was in nearly every frame of the 30-second clip. Name recognition, he said, is a huge leg-up for politicians and one of the principal benefits to incumbency.
“With the name on every slide of the presentation, or of the ad, it is very clear he would not mind a few good public health policies associated with his name,” Neiheisel said. “Politicians are keen to use any opportunity they have to get their name out there.”
Mumby said the advertisement was solely motivated by public health concerns and that Glassman’s appearance was to add a recognizable face to the public health efforts.
“It is lending an additional voice to the need to take the virus seriously,” she said. “You see your county executive in a place that you don’t typically see him.”
Though gubernatorial elections are two years away, Hill said it is not uncommon for politicians to seek regional recognition in advance of the more dialed-in and targeted stages of campaign advertising closer to Election Day. The TV spot, Hill said, also offers more exposure than running an ad in a medium local to Harford County.
More effective, Hill said, would be asking a celebrity or someone of higher profile to deliver the health message. In using spokespersons to deliver messages, marketers generally look for someone everyday people can relate to or someone recognizable and beloved. Aberdeen native Cal Ripken, or another athlete, would make for a more enduring message; a politician does not offer a fresh take on COVID safety, he said.
“I think there would be very few people watching saying ‘Huh, wash my hands, that is a surprise,’” Hill said. “He’s trying to get recognition, that is what it looks like.”
Neighboring Baltimore County made its own COVID-19 safety advertisements and brought Baltimore Ravens player Calais Campbell and physician Leana Wen, among other local media personalities, to promote public health guidelines like masking, social distancing and hand washing.
Both Campbell and Wen’s ads are about the same length as Glassman’s, but relay much of the same information. The ads ran in the regional media market, which includes WBAL TV and radio, 101.9 FM and others, along with geotargeting some digital ads to Baltimore County.
“Public health messages are best communicated by providing a collection of trusted credible messengers to share information as widely as possible,” said Sean Naron, a Baltimore County spokesperson.
He said the advertisements are part of the county’s “Be Safe to Stay Safe” campaign that launched in August to educate residents on COVID safety precautions. Beyond the TV, radio and digital ads, Baltimore County introduced signage to county facilities, table-tents and businesses in addition to providing 10,000 face masks to promote public awareness of COVID’s risks.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, also appears in a 12-second ad to urge constituents to stay safe.
In the fall, Baltimore County shifted into phase two of the program, aimed at slowing the double-threat of the flu and coronavirus, Naron said. The program is funded with $750,000 of CARES Act money.
Local governments have restrictions on how they can spend CARES Act money, but those limitations are broadly defined. According to guidance released by the U.S. Treasury, the funding can only be spent on necessary costs resulting from the public health emergency that were not budgeted before the pandemic hit and were incurred after March 1.
Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, said the use of CARES Act funding for communications is permitted under the act and is monitored by a host of federal committees. Determining what is necessary under the act, he said, is another question, but not one at issue in the case of communicating with the public.
“Those determinations of necessity have been broadly understood around the country to include a communications aspect,” he said. “[The] Treasury recognizes that talking to the American people is required for us to make it through the pandemic.”
Previously, the county has used shares of its approximately $45 million in federal funding for a variety of business grants, helping residents with delinquent water and sewer bills and child care relief grants, among others. As of Nov. 25, the county had spent about $26.3 million of its federal money, which must be used by Dec. 30 or be returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Mumby said the advertisements’ effectiveness in changing behavior was hard to quantify, but the county has heard of the ads reaching residents and hopes the message sticks with them.
“We hope that folks are going to follow the advice and the recommendations,” she said. “What is the reach of a particular medium to the extent that it affects behavior, I do not think we can say precisely.”